Stirring Up A Hornet's Nest

Tian Fengshan never seemed like ministerial material. The eldest son of a peasant family in Heilongjiang province, he spoke with a thick rural accent that still makes him the butt of jokes among locals. Yet Tian won steady promotions, becoming provincial governor and then, four years ago, minister of Land and Resources in the central government. Even then, provincial authorities held meetings instructing cadres not to mimic his dialect. For all his lack of polish, Tian had one big advantage: he was an old acquaintance of Hu Jintao's, now China's president and party chief.

The 54-year-old minister should have been reveling in his sterling connections when the party's top apparatchiks gathered for a mid-October plenum in the Great Hall of the People. But by the second day of the meeting, Tian had disappeared. On Oct. 14, a deputy took over his ministerial duties. Since then, central authorities officially confirm, he's been investigated for "serious breaches of discipline"--and that's all they'll say. Tian is under shuanggui, a sort of party-mandated five-star house arrest. He hasn't been legally charged, and could yet be released without trial. "But there's already evidence of corruption," says a Heilongjiang source familiar with the probe. "And if you think past cases have been complex, just wait for this one."

The minister's sacking has stirred up a hornet's nest in Heilongjiang. The allegations against him feed into a morass of intertwined investigations--some a decade old--involving just about every sort of official abuse. Cadres were bribed with mink coats and Mercedeses. Hundreds of government jobs were "sold" to unqualified candidates. One crooked official was discovered to have five mistresses, five apartments and five luxury sedans; locals call it the "555 case" after a popular brand of cigarette. After Communist Party watchdogs began sniffing around Heilongjiang, another sort of malfeasance cropped up--officials covering up the dirt on their cronies.

If all that's true, it's a wonder Tian wasn't toppled earlier. A decade ago the provincial capital of Harbin was rocked by scandal when authorities received a tip that Zhang Tingpu, general manager of the International Trade City--a vast multilevel shopping complex--was spearheading a massive embezzlement operation. (Investigators found accounting books buried in a vegetable garden and videotapes that showed him handing out money, mink coats and mobile phones to local officials.) Ultimately, Zhang confessed to diverting $1.74 million in tax revenues to shady officials, including the tax-bureau head and Harbin's deputy mayor; 67 Harbin government employees were indicted.

It was Yu Xinhua, Zhang's own deputy general manager, who had blown the whistle on him in 1994. Yet even now, a decade later, Yu hints that the case isn't entirely closed--and that investigators may have let the biggest fish get away. Had Zhang's malfeasance been investigated more thoroughly in the 1990s, Heilongjiang sources say, Tian's alleged shady dealings might have come to light much sooner. One Harbin source familiar with the various probes claimed Tian had received a Mercedes in return for help in "facilitating" a fraudulent joint venture for one of Zhang's associates.

But Tian's disgrace was triggered by a more recent case, NEWSWEEK has learned. The breakthrough came just a few months ago, in an investigation of cadres "buying" local government jobs in Suihua, a city two hours' drive from Harbin. One suspect, Wang Shenyi, claimed he'd given $72,300 to Tian, then Heilongjiang governor, several years ago in return for Tian's help in installing Wang as mayor of Suihua, sources with access to investigation records told NEWSWEEK. "Everybody accepts this practice [of buying promotions]," says a government source. "They think it's normal."

So normal, in fact, that a team from the party's watchdog organ, the Central Discipline Commission, has simultaneously been pursuing another such case involving Tian. Last year authorities detained Ma De, who had been promoted to become Suihua's party secretary in the mid-1990s. (He was friends with Tian, who had also held government posts in Suihua in the 1980s.) When news of Wang's bribery confession got out, investigators used it as leverage in their questioning of Ma, who is suspected of "selling" government positions. "Ma had tried to protect his mentor Tian, but finally he confessed to bribing Tian, too," says a Heilongjiang source with access to internal documents.

Even by Heilongjiang's spectacular standards, the Ma De case appears to run deep. More than 250 officials are said to have been detained or questioned as of last week in relation to a massive bribes-for-promotions scheme that allegedly involved as much as $3 million in graft. The corruption appears to be so routinized that there was even a sliding scale of payments for posts: from as little as $3,600 for a village party secretary's job to $120,500 for a county party head's position. Payments supposedly went to cadres further up the government chain, especially Ma but also Tian. With hundreds of officials being questioned this year, investigators had no choice but to start cutting deals. Those who received bribes of less than $12,000 were offered amnesty if they confessed; bribes of more than $60,000 automatically sent the suspect to court; those in between faced dismissal but not criminal charges. "They couldn't sack everybody involved," says a local source familiar with the case, "otherwise the entire city government would grind to a halt."

So far, Heilongjiang officials refuse to publicly confirm the scale of the Ma De case. And at least part of the reason Tian was taken down is likely symbolic. "Which senior cadre isn't corrupt?" says one Heilongjiang official, shrugging. "And look at the amount of the bribes he allegedly took--they're nothing." The party, on the defensive about the recent revelation of collusion in Shanghai between unscrupulous real-estate developers and local officials, may simply have needed a high-profile arrest to convince the people that it is aggressively confronting the corruption within its ranks.

On the other hand, Tian may have been sacrificed to an even larger political power struggle. His ties to Hu are well known: Heilongjiang government sources say Tian had been part of an internal party unit nearly a decade and a half ago charged with assessing Hu's controversial tenure as party secretary of Tibet in the late 1980s, an era racked by grass-roots unrest and violence. "Tian wrote good reports about Hu's time in Tibet," says one party source. "More recently, Hu often met Tian for private talks whenever Hu came to Heilongjiang." Thus when hints of Tian's shady dealings began surfacing, nobody dared investigate until Hu himself gave the green light.

Hu did, according to Heilongjiang government sources. Why? By offering up his friend, China's president may have bought himself the political room to press home a high-level corruption probe in Shanghai, home to a group of influential senior officials perceived to be Hu's rivals, collectively known as the Shanghai Faction. Despite loud allegations of deep-seated corruption there, so far no major heads have rolled in Shanghai. Some insiders expect that they soon will--and that Tian's fall will help smooth the way as part of a tit-for-tat trade. Either way, China's season of scandal seems to be just beginning.